The most remarkable thing about “T2 Trainspotting” (other than the sequel’s stupid in-joke of a title) is that all of the original film’s heroin junkie heroes are somehow still alive. It’s been 21 years since Danny Boyle first made smack look a little bit too cool, and 1996 feels several eons removed from the post-Brexit nonsense we’re dealing with now, but Scotland’s four favorite dope fiends haven’t changed nearly as much as the world around them. They’re still addicts, even if some of them have found a new drug of choice. They’re still fools, even if Boyle has made so many slick movies about the perils of romanticizing self-destruction (e.g. “A Life Less Ordinary,” “The Beach,” and “Steve Jobs”) that it’s hard to take him seriously as a voice of reason. Worst of all, they’re still a lot of fun to watch, even if they no longer have all that much on their minds.
Considerably less ambitious or provocative than Boyle’s barnstorming first crack at these characters, “T2 Trainspotting” (can we please just call it “T2″?) is an enjoyable nostalgia trip about the extraordinary headache of trying to go home again. Very loosely adapted from Irvine Welsh’s 2002 novel “Porno,” the film is forced to look further into the future than the author of its source material ever had to, and it finds a Scotland that’s struggling to settle on its place in the 21st century. The official greeters at the airport have immigrated from Serbia, the government is throwing cash at even the flimsiest gentrification efforts, and Protestant loyalists have been left to sing about their glory days during pub nights dedicated to The Battle of the Boyne. Once upon a time, these men were a symptom of their country’s exuberant youth culture, now they’re relics of a forgotten age, their various dependencies preserving their identities like mosquitos in amber.
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Renton (Ewan McGregor, who’s aged approximately 10 minutes in the last 20 years), now a seemingly well-adjusted asset manager or something boring like that, has returned from Amsterdam in the hopes of making amends with his mates and returning the money he stole from them at the end of “Trainspotting.” But while he may have chosen life, the rest of his crew still seem to be on the fence about it. Begbie’s current existence couldn’t possibly be more purgatorial, as the psychopathic shit-starter (reprised by Robert Carlyle, still commanding after all these years) has spent the last few years in Edinburgh’s finest prison, fantasizing about revenge.
Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller, whose violently charismatic performance argues that he should have been more of a movie star) is still bleached blond and rough around the edges. In addition to owning a pathetic dive bar in the mirthfully misnamed “Port Sunshine,” he busies himself by using his Bulgarian prostitute girlfriend (Anjela Nedyalkova) to entrap rich men into compromising positions and extort them for coke money. Last but not least, there’s Spud (the wonderfully turnip-headed Ewen Bremner), still hooked on heroin and desperate for a helping hand. An early scene in which Renton saves him from a suicide attempt is almost as astonishingly foul as “The Worst Toilet in Scotland,” and convincing evidence that Boyle still cares about these characters enough to run them through the wringer.
But nothing victimizes them quite like their own pasts. Everything in their lives is a watered down imitation of something from their youths, and that’s some very dangerous territory for any sequel to explore. From the very first shot, which tweaks Renton’s iconic opening dash from the original by reintroducing him on a generic gym treadmill, Boyle is eager to get ahead of the criticisms invited by the film’s existence. It’s as though he’s trying to preemptively excuse the scene in which Renton and Sick Boy play with Snapchat.
Boyle’s characteristically manic aesthetic helps keep these characters petrified in their pasts. Dutch angles and dream sequences are a dime a dozen, the director busting them out as though he’s finally rediscovered an appropriate outlet for his favorite tics. Whereas so many of Boyle’s more recent films have submitted their subjects to his high-energy style, Renton and the gang were organically born from it, and that difference is enough to make “T2” (how about just “Trainspotting 2″?) feel like more than a cash grab; it’s the first Danny Boyle movie since “Slumdog Millionaire” that’s actually improved by his direction. That’s as true in the graphic-heavy scenes of hedonism as it is in the sequence where a rabid Begbie chases Renton while sporting a Viagra-induced erection.
In all respects, “Trainspotting 2” (yup) is best when looking backwards — a willingness to interject footage from the first film and contrive cameos for some familiar faces definitely limits the movie’s potential, but its fetish for nostalgia is all that galvanizes an otherwise hollow plot about the boys trying to renovate Sick Boy’s bar into a brothel while doing their best to keep the murderous Begbige at bay. “You’re a tourist in your own youth,” someone barks at Renton, and the barb cuts deep. In his younger and more vulnerable days, “Choose life” may have been a fittingly sarcastic slogan for a junkie whose friends were dying by the dozen, but how do you get on with it when you’re old enough to realize that there may not be a better alternative? Life isn’t pretty, Renton comes to learn, but it’s the only thing we’ve got.
“T2: Trainspotting” opens in U.S. theaters on Friday, March 17.